Why the cheap-and-cheerful Noughties was the greatest decade to travel

True low-cost travel and a short-haul boom – in our penultimate piece on travel's greatest era we ask: was 2000-2009 the best decade?

Europe has influenced Chris Leadbeater's thinking for as long as he can recall

There is a fair chance that I was a Europhile in the womb. In the 1960s, my maternal grandfather had been a huge fan of the continental road trip, cramming three small children into a doughty Austin, then setting off, through France and Italy, for beaches on the Yugoslav “Riviera” and the peripheries of Athens. 

Even if there was no genetic feed-through, my parents picked up the baton in the 1980s, playing similar games of sardines with children and estate cars for camping breaks in Normandy, the Dordogne and beyond. I had been to Paris by the time I was eight, to Munich by nine, to Venice at 10 – no insignificant feat when none of these journeys involved flights.

Europe has influenced my thinking for as long as I can recall. It has infused the music I listen to, the books I read, the food I eat, the votes I’ve cast. I make no apology for this. 

It has dominated my travels as an adult, too. With the exception of the US – my other most beloved destination – nowhere has called to me more loudly or repeatedly than the European mainland. And never more persuasively than in the Noughties. I have been a travel writer for almost a quarter of a century, visiting 91 countries in the course of my wanderings – an many of them were first glimpsed in the semi-hopeful 10 years at the start of this new millennium, when getting around seemed a little easier than it does now. 

It was certainly easier than it had been. In the 1980s, half the continent was, of course, an effective closed shop, cut off by an Iron Curtain that fascinated and unnerved me in equal measure. The places that had lived behind it were barely more accessible to me in the 1990s – my university decade – when a weekend in Krakow was outside my budget.

But by the turn of the century, everything had changed. The internet had stopped being a niche science project and had started to transform the process of planning a holiday, morphing it from something clunky – all hand-written paper tickets and Saturday-morning visits to high-street travel agents – into a slicker, quicker business. 

Slovenia in July 2003, a strong contender for Europe’s prettiest capital Credit: Getty

Meanwhile, the budget airlines had revolutionised short-haul flying, and in those halcyon days “low-cost” travel really seemed to mean low-cost. Perhaps my memories are rose-tinted, but I’m sure arranging a mini-break circa 2005 did not involve booking fees or baggage charges. You simply paid a small amount – £29.99 return, or something similarly ludicrous – and off you went. 

And go I did: to Berlin, where I marvelled at being able to walk under the Brandenburg Gate, across the line on the pavement where the Wall, whose televised destruction I’d witnessed in 1989, had once stood; to Prague, which was not yet so bloated with tourists that you couldn’t see the statues on the Charles Bridge for the forest of selfie-sticks; to Ljubljana in Slovenia – which, I am convinced, remains Europe’s prettiest capital – where the Ljubljanica flowed past cafés and castles; to Budapest, still shaking off the Cold War in its faded arcades, where I stumbled into the antique Gellert Baths – realising too late that they were nude-obligatory.

It was a more innocent era. True, 9/11 had already set in motion the ratcheting of security that makes the modern airport such a fraught experience, and the various terror attacks of the decade would tighten the ligature a little further each time.

But while Brexit has not proved the impediment to continental travel that I had feared, it helps to pin 2000-2010 to a brighter place in my headspace – sunlight on a restaurant terrace somewhere in Berlin’s Kreuzberg.

Read recollections of travel during the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties.

What are your fondest memories of travel in the Noughties? Share your stories in the comments section below